No. 94. Tanka’s Buddha-burning
(Translator’s note: Tanka was a Chinese Zen master who died in 824 AD, and was famous for having burnt a wooden Buddha to make a fire on a very cold winter night, there being no other fuel. For this he was severely reprimanded by the superintendent priest of the temple. The latter however found his own eyebrows falling off, a traditional sign of something spiritually wrong. There are many pictures of the Buddha- burning incident, including a most unconventional one by Fugai in Japan.)
Norimasa, an artist training in Zen, was visiting the Shogatsuan temple of Kamegayatsu (the pagoda of Jufukuji temple) when he noticed a scroll depicting Tanka burning the Buddha. He asked about the meaning of Tanka’s Buddha-burning. Priest Ryozen, who was in charge of the temple, told him:
‘It is as a means to show how the physical form is destroyed, and with that burning to ashes of the wooden Buddha, the true essence stands out.’
The artist said: ‘I have heard from you the truth of his Buddha-burning. But — I wonder — what did the temple supervisor do wrong that his eyebrows dropped off when he reproved Tanka so severely?’
The priest said: ‘Yes, what would he have done wrong? Do you meditate on it, and penetrate into it.’
Why was it that Tanka burnt the Buddha?
Why was it that the temple supervisor’s eyebrows dropped off?
Suppose right now there is someone in front of you burning a wooden Buddha, how will you meet the situation?
This incident became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of My6-6, the 45th master at Zenkoji and a teacher of the Oryu line.